Sicily, like most Italian destinations, takes national holidays very seriously. The opportunity to decorate, celebrate and, of course, cook and create fabulous dishes and treats, is whole-heartedly embraced – especially during the Christmas season.
A Christmas break in Sicily offers visitors many unique experiences. One of the most endearing and widely popular traditions on the island is the nativity scene.
The ‘Nativity Scene’ Scene
Although beautifully decorated Christmas trees can be found in Sicily, the custom is still fairly new, having been introduced to the island during the Second World War. The tradition of hand-crafted, custom-made nativity scenes, however, is one that is steeped in history and believed to have been introduced by St. Francis of Assisi. Many Sicilians use the Christmas holiday as a muse of sort to inspire exquisite artwork and craftsmanship as well as an opportunity to display religious devotion.
Many visitors enjoying their Christmas break in Sicily take advantage of the off-season prices of some of the best coastal hotels. Many of these locations are relatively near the Sicilian towns best known for their Nativity scenes. Locally known as ‘presepi’, it is well worth planning on a day trip to go and see these pieces of art. For example, Caltagirone is a small village in the Sicilian Province of Catania, only an hour and a half away from the beautiful coastal town of Arigento. Caltagirone is best known for its pottery – however, during the Christmas season, its artists hand-craft some of the most intricate Nativity scenes from traditional materials such as terracotta, wood, string and diverse fabrics. Their creativity has evolved over the years, producing scenes made entirely out of pasta and some have lit backgrounds with mechanically moving pieces.
Sicilians create these masterpieces with splendid detail and delicate touches. Some are as big as a person and some are so small that they fit in the palm of your hand. A Christmas break in Sicily should definitely involve a visit to see and appreciate these stunning pieces of art and craftsmanship.
The Living Scene
However, the Nativity scene is not limited to the still life of the above-mentioned artistic creations. Many Sicilian towns enact live Nativity scenes depicting the holy family as well as the trades and crafts of the region.
In the South East region, near the beautiful historical town of Noto, is Ispica, Ragusa. The whole town participates in creating the living nativity scene. Ispica attracts thousands of visitors each year to their annual ‘presepe vivente’, which is held in an 8 mile long gorge found in the Parco Forza area of the Cava d’Ispica. The landscape itself is breath-taking with rocky slopes, grottoes and caves which have in fact been inhabited since prehistoric times.
During the Christmas season the site is transformed into a 19th-century village. A planned route that criss-crosses the gorge guides visitors to various scenes, set into the huge stone recesses of the gorge. Actors in period costumes enact the different trades found in the region, such as farming, stonemasonry, sewing and carpentry. The tour ultimately ends at the nativity scene complete with the holy family, offerings of fruit and produce, and live sheep standing watch over the manger. The gorge is lit up at night with candles, fires and stars to illuminate the holy scene. It is obvious why it is one of Sicily’s most popular and unique traditions during the Christmas season.
Choosing to spend your Christmas break in Sicily will certainly keep you relaxed yet still in a festive spirit. The stunning coastal towns, with their easy access to locations displaying seasonal attractions, offer visitors a unique insight into many familiar traditions as well as an introduction to some new and intriguing ones.
John Dixon is an experienced world traveller and the Managing Director of Prestige Holidays. For over 30 years, he has been providing luxury accommodation in Sicily, Croatia and Bermuda. If you're travelling to experience the beach, the culture or even for a Christmas break Prestige has the perfect accommodation for you. John tries to visit all the destinations regularly, in order to ensure the quality of his properties, and stay up-to-date about the latest local news and events. He has a taste for the finer things in life and has an interest in arts, history and culture.
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